In The Heart of the Sea – 2015

Director Ron Howard
Screenplay Charles Leavitt based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Since the time of his over reliance on Dan Brown to keep his directing career afloat, Ron Howard’s films have become incredibly boring. He’s gone back and forth between drawn out historical drama (Cinderella ManFrost/NixonThe Missing) one flashy recent historical film (Rush) and a comedy dud (The Dilemma). It seems the deeper in his career he gets, the more he replaces genuine feeling with sepia tone affected camera angles. This method has never been more in evidence than the In The Heart of the Sea.

The angle of the story of the making of the story has just about played out before this effort. Instead of seeing a master like Melville at work, we get to see a good actor (Whishaw) play a toothless version of him, begging for scraps of a story of an old coot named Nickerson who apparently spent many years catatonically sitting through life when it’s obvious he had to make a living somehow.  In this case the coot is a strangely ineffective Gleeson. The film starts with a needless back and forth where it’s obvious that an understanding has been reached off-screen, only to have the him try to call it off now that Melville made a long journey to hear his story first hand. Why do they play hard to get?  It’s a tease, of course, but a worthless one. We don’t need to know whether the author of Moby Dick is worthy to tell the story. History and the ticket price already proved it so.

Once that batch of foolishness fades for the first time (yes, they go back to that useless well), we see the narrator as a young man (Holland) as the basis for the story begins. This time, the First Mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is expecting his first child and his first command. He gets neither before he is sent on his next mission aboard the vessel Essex. Instead of captaincy, he gets to serve under George Pollard, Jr. (Walker). The relationship between the two is foolishly contentious at first, but a respect grows eventually. This is one of the formulas in the film that works as much for the acting as the script and direction. Walker plays the part of a man gifted by family name well. We see that while he may not be worthy of the role of captain by ability, he certainly has the character to merit the part.

The whaling expedition begins late in the season and situates the crew with the burden of playing catch up. This leads to some poor decisions attributed to Pollard. Once they survive a near total wreck of the vessel, he is convinced by Chase to soldier forward and repair what they can on the way.

It’s at this point the film has its most interesting passage, centered around the killing and complete utility of a sperm whale. There is a mix of revulsion and fascination one feels when seeing the lengths the sailors go to in making use of the beast. It makes one wonder what the world would have been like had we found another way to use the resources we thought we needed from them.

At a stop in Ecuador, Chase and Pollard overhear a Spanish Captain’s story about a white whale that destroyed their ship, killing six men in the process. There would be no story if the two heeded the man’s warning.

The sequence involving the pod of whales that include the inspiration for Moby Dick is – of course – a big selling point of the trailer. It looks absolutely insane and scary as hell. The execution leaves a little to be desired, however. It’s a mish mash of cluttered scenes that while perhaps historically accurate, does not give as much dread as it does inevitability. From here, much was made of the journey of the castaways. It’s choppy and pushes forward without any scenes that grab this viewer. After the deliberation of Unbroken earlier in the year, this just seems like a bad couple of days out in the ocean.

In essence, Howard seems to be hitting spots without taking an adequate enough time to set the mood, outside of the relationship between Pollard and Chase. What we see are a series of events with little to no flow between them. This is likely because there is no real character growth within the ample 121-minute running time. If they had shaved the whole Melville / Old Nickerson story out and just concentrated on the characters in the actual events of the story, this may have turned out differently.

As it stands, the characters outside of those portrayed by Walker and Hemsworth seem almost comical in their devotion to cliché. What the hell happened to Murphy’s Matthew Joy? There is supposed to be some sort of backstory with he and Chase, but it’s so laughably bad, I can scarcely believe he agreed to play the role unless there was some 30 minutes left on the cutting room floor.

That Howard was given $100 million to play with on this film is absurd when one thinks of the final product. So many scenes feel emotionless and computer generated. This could have been made better by any hack director from Stephen Somers to Michael Bay. The end result feels like a true artist that has been marooned since he turned A Beautiful Mind into a beautiful fiction and was foolishly given an Oscar for his efforts.

The thing behind Howard’s best work was never effects, camera angles and overwrought and concocted drama. It has always been about character. From Night Shift, to Splash, to Cocoon, to Parenthood on through his best work, Apollo 13, each story had great characters completely drawn. He doesn’t know how to do that so much anymore. Instead he’s become reliant on little falsehoods woven into each biography meant to tweak Oscar voters, even if it leaves the story out of original territory and makes it just like everything else.

It’d be nice if he could find some way to get himself back into storytelling mode. Something similar to what Reiner has found with low budget gems like Flipped or anything that Jeff Nichols has done. It seems like he thinks he’s reached a status of auteur. These things happen when you make hack commercials for political figures or when you win Oscars for calculated half-truths.

This won’t happen though. He’s on well on his way to making the next Dan Brown movie based on crap theology. The 2nd one made half as much as the 1st, so we should see him make a few more before they realize they don’t make any money anymore. Just like Ron Howard career outside of those films.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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